“It is what it is, and it’s all good,” Linda Owczarzack, 55, says. “That’s my saying, and that’s the summary.” Linda, through dry wit and unwavering determination, is showing that life really can be reinvented.
“One of the hardest parts of this condition is the misunderstanding people have when they see me. I present very well. People don’t realize that I can’t button my clothes or tie my shoes. You can have a powerful, normal, healthy appearance but be going through something entirely different on the inside.”
In 2005, Linda was diagnosed with estrogen receptive breast cancer, following a diagnosis of basal cell carcinoma on her face in 1999. The doctors gave her a 30% chance of survival. After multiple surgeries, chemotherapy, and difficult complications, Linda made it to remission. Though she beat the odds for survival, Linda was left with complicated and permanent side-effects of the cancer treatment. She now has moderate to severe neuropathy, which means she has limited sensation in her body, particularly her arms and legs. “It’s hard to explain, but my feet and hands feel frozen. I can move them, but I can’t necessarily tell what they’re doing.” She explains that when she walks, she doesn’t feel her feet hitting the ground. She also has a chronic cough in part due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
While battling cancer, Linda lost her job with a local school district after working for 14 years as a paraeducator. “If I looked at everything I’ve lost, it would not be productive,” she says. “Instead, I accept what’s in front of me and recognize the good. There’s always good.” With that attitude and determined to chart a new course for her career, Linda went back to school to pursue an associates degree at Washtenaw Community College to become a medical administrative assistant.
When she returned to school, though, Linda found the neuropathy was posing challenges that were getting in the way of her success. She couldn’t type accurately on a standard keyboard and was having difficulty getting her assignments done. “It was frustrating,” Linda said. She eventually got a recommendation from UM for alternative keyboarding technology and went to Michigan Rehabilitation Services and the CIL for help in getting connected to it.
“I’m already using ‘Dragon’ to type letters and reports. When I get in sync with the program, I can fly through work and assignments. It’s so much more efficient than trying to type with numb hands.”
Ann Arbor CIL Rehabilitation Engineer Glen Ashlock helped Linda get ahold of two types of technology allowing her to enter text into her computer without moving her fingers. The alternative keyboard OrbiTouch enables her to input letters and commands using hand movements instead of finger movements, and Dragon Naturally-Speaking, a software program, enables her to enter text through speaking.
To use the devices, Linda had to learn a whole new way of doing things. For the OrbiTouch, Linda had to master a code based on colors and hand movements, and to use the Dragon Naturally-Speaking, she had to learn how to speak so that it catches her instructions accurately. Glen provided Linda with training and support to make sure she was prepared to use them, and Linda says, “Glen was wonderful. It’s going to take some more time to really master these devices, but after only a few months, I’m already seeing the benefits.”
“The Center has provided a real opportunity for success,” she added. “The new devices allow me to use the skills I have in a non-traditional way.” Linda paused and reflected, “which is who I am.”